Digital technology promises a bright future, but it’s complex and it nags on executives’ confidence; more so than many will admit. Time to shift gear – you can’t know it all. The new currency of expertise is having an overview.
Technology has penetrated almost every corner of the business. For the most part, that’s great news. What do customers want? What’s the most profitable sales channel? Which half of our marketing money is being wasted? Thanks to technology, we can now figure it out.
Business technology has virtually exploded. Scott Brinker’s first Marketing Technology Landscape chart in 2011, for example, featured around 150 solutions. It’s now at more than 5,000.
At Dmexco, Europe’s largest digital marketing conference, I found it impossible to get my head around the thousands of digital solutions on display. It was a zoo – or a massive party (however you want to look at it).
Business leaders aren’t the only ones witnessing the technology ‘big bang’. Harvard Business Review recently listed the top 10 coming medical innovations, including regenerative and genetic medicine, surgical robots and virtual visits. A consultation room without a computer is now inconceivable in many developed countries.
Derailing the expert mind
Technology has a profound negative impact on leaders’ confidence. I recently did a little experiment. During my last conference workshops, I showed Scott Brinker’s technology chart and then asked the people in the room: “For you personally, are these new tools good or bad news?”
The results were striking. Every single time I asked, the majority voted for bad news. When I asked why, many people said that things have got too complex. Some even admitted they’ve lost trust in their own skills and question their competence.
This loss of confidence isn’t surprising, especially for experts. Take marketing: in many firms, marketing is a specialised role like HR or finance and marketers get hired because of their expertise in, say, branding, pricing or advertising. People give experts problems to solve and great experts come up with the right answer.
‘Digital native’ doesn’t equal ‘digital business leader’. In fact, most young leaders have no clue how to profitably deploy technology for the business.
But suddenly, something’s changing: thousands of digital tools and technologies have come on the scene – more than any executive could ever grasp. Many experts don’t have all the answers. Not any more. And for someone who’s used to having all the answers, not knowing can be pretty disturbing.
As a result, many leaders are feeling the fear: “Am I still good enough? Will I ever learn the new skills? Have I got the right team?” If that’s you, you are in the company of millions of professionals who suddenly feel behind the curve.
First off, let’s accept that most executives today feel a similar unease when it comes to technology – a bit insecure, perhaps frightened at times. By the way, it’s not an age thing. True, some people have grown up with the internet and know all Snapchat’s tricks. But ‘digital native’ doesn’t equal ‘digital business leader’. In fact, most young leaders have no clue how to profitably deploy technology for the business. The pressure is high for everybody.
It’s important for you to realise that, as a user of business technology, some level of unease is the new normal. Don’t let the tech-explosion pull you down. Instead, learn a new skill: the power of zooming.
Learn to zoom in and out
To thrive in a complex world, you must learn to zoom in to the lowest level of detail. But you must also be able to zoom out, to look at the business as a whole. It’s not either-or. Every business executive must learn how to dig deep and keep the overview. It’s zooming in and zooming out all the time.
I’ve worked with numerous C-suite leaders to help them deal with technology by zooming in and out. Here are two techniques that may help you too.
1. Always start by zooming out
Before even thinking of any technology or tool, step back and ask yourself the big business questions: what do customers really need from us? What’s the business’s biggest opportunity?
If you are new, answering these questions may take some effort. Talk to the leadership team. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Perhaps the answer is as simple as targeted advertising. Perhaps your biggest lever is to fix prices, improve the product or get more distribution. It’s possible that your most important business opportunity will have nothing to do with digital technology (if in doubt about this, read literally any article by Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson).
One CMO I recently worked with had figured out, after zooming out, that online catalogues for his company’s B2B customers were 10 times more important for revenue growth than paid search. But his team was all focused on search. It was a painful fix, but the new clarity gave him and the team much more digital confidence.
It can be tough to break the routine and think big-picture in an office setting. Take your team off-site for a day. Get a moderator in. Once you know it, write down the answer to this simple question: “For our organisation, what’s the biggest revenue and profit potential from technology?”
Once you have the overview, zoom in. Which tools are the best? How does this tool work in detail? Even as the department head, if you want to install new campaign management software, get your hands dirty. Try it out. See how easy it is to use. Look at the results. Even as a big-picture person, you must zoom in too to understand how your technology actually works.
2. Find partners who can zoom out
You’re likely to meet some of the 5,000-plus digital solution providers from Scott Brinker’s chart. Many of them have great solutions. But few will help you zoom out. Why? Because their tools tackle detailed issues like customer segmentation or campaign management.
Find partners who can help you zoom out too. In marketing, for example, a big challenge is making sense of all the company’s customer insights. That’s a big-picture issue that often requires artificial intelligence to solve. Can your partners help you zoom out? Find out. Ask them the same question you ask yourself: “For our organisation, what’s the biggest revenue and profit potential from technology?”
The next time you are drowning, zoom out of the digital waters and catch a glimpse of that big-picture horizon.
Thomas Barta is one of the world’s premier marketing leadership experts, a professional keynote speaker, and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ with Patrick Barwise.